Articles: How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently

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The Billboard: Jean Paul Sartre

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The Billboard: Arthur Schopenhauer

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Interest: Alastair Mitchell A.K.A. Aly

I had the chance to meet Aly for 24 hours. We talked for 12 of them, on topics ranging from life, religion, philosophy, music and science.  He sang a few Scottish folk songs from long ago and never before heard in the place we were; the old dialect effortlessly moulding with our mountainous surroundings. This is a man who left his homeland, Scotland, to travel, to volunteer, to explore the world.  Not all people can do this, and especially if it comes down to leaving a developed country with all its personal, economic, and social comforts behind.  A few weeks ago, I came back from one of my own mountaineering adventures and today, along with Aly, we happen to be in Bayan Ulgii in Western Mongolia.

In the brief time we spent with Aly over lunch and drinks, then dinner and drinks, and breakfast without the drinks, I found that he is of the rare breed of people I have encountered that understands life through the analysis of experience, reason, logic, and a well-read history of both outsourced and personally sourced material.  Although brief, the time we spent was a complete pleasure, and I decided to ask Aly a few questions to share his insights and his perspectives on things.

  1. What would be considered your favorite “time to yourself” kind of activity?
  2. Where would you go to disappear?
  3. What do you think of humans, historically and presently?
  4. What is the greatest virtue?
  5. What do you think the future will look like?

Alastair-Mitchell

  1. I am not sure if I have a favorite ‘time to myself activity’. There are many things that I like to do alone and maybe, through the years, they have been different things at different times. However, consistently throughout my life, from childhood right up to now, I have always loved being in the countryside, walking in the hills and the mountains. Walking has been a consistent favorite activity; if I do not do it, I do not feel right. I used to live in London when I was a teenager and although that great cosmopolitan city has its charm, I always felt constrained by the concrete and the sheer number of people made me feel claustrophobic.  I yearned always for the wide open spaces.  I need to walk and have always done a lot of it. Reading also, has always given me great satisfaction. Although, nowadays, I do not read with the same intensity as I once did, I still love to read. Recently, whilst here in Mongolia, I have re-read ‘Les Miserables,’ that great book of 19th century Humanist Romanticism, which I read as a young man, it  was even better reading  it the second time round, as I understood more. I recently watched the film version – I loved it!
  2. Where would I go to disappear? I am not sure if I would want to disappear, at least not quite yet, but I suppose being here in Mongolia is a kind of disappearing, at least from the so-called modern world. There have been times, when here, seated upon a horse, in this wilderness, I have felt an almost primordial sense of oneness with nature and I have loved it. Gone completely has been that sense of alienation I have often felt, especially when living in a modern city.
  3. What do I think of humans, historically and presently? I was once optimistic and then I became pessimistic as a result of world events coupled with personal disappointments. The same evils seem to be perpetrated over and over again, regardless of what kind of society is in existence. But then I realized that pessimism, like optimism, were two sides of the same coin, the coin of man’s self- deception of his own self-importance. The pessimist thinks the Universe is peculiarly arraigned against them and the optimist that it is for them, in the ‘best of all possible worlds.’ The truth, I realized, is that the Universe is indifferent to the destiny of man. Although I do not agree with the general proposition of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy, he has some interesting ideas, including the idea that humans are so constituted, that they need to struggle for existence and that once: ‘man has thrown off all other burdens he becomes a burden to himself.’ Human beings have for most of their existence struggled to survive, they are made that way. Nowadays, people in the ‘developed world’ no longer have to do this and consequently, they do not know what to do with themselves; they are always looking for distractions, to fill up their time, to stave off boredom. They are not happy or content. Although it may not be very scientific, Plato’s concept of the tripartite division of the soul I find illuminating. I believe we are all born with some combination of reason, will (spirit) and appetite. Appetite and spirit we share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Reason seems to be unique to humans. Some people are all appetite, with little spirit or will and very little reason. Others have too much spirit and not enough reason. l think we are born that way, an accident of birth. Nowadays, I agree with Victor Frankle, that survivor of 20th century horror, the concentration camp; that:  “only two races of men exist: decent and non- decent ones. These are found in all races and classes.” That, I suppose, is what I now believe about human beings. Societies may improve and they have in many ways, but human beings, essentially, have remained the same. There are good people and bad people.
  4. What is the greatest virtue?  Perhaps to me this seems, at least superficially, the easiest question to answer. All the Cardinal Virtues are important: temperance, prudence, courage, justice. The founders of the Christian church added faith hope and love to these classical virtues and so I suppose, if love is considered a virtue, then I would agree with Paul the Apostle, that to love without condition, (Agape)is the greatest virtue. Although, I may be persuaded to think that hope against all reason is the greatest virtue.
  5. What do I think the future will look like? Depending on my mood, the future will either see the final extinction of all human life on earth, or it will continue to progress with scientific knowledge and hopefully, one day, we will finally grow up and put an end to pre-history and begin constructing a decent, socially just world. Or perhaps it will continue much like the past and the present – that is the curse of the human condition, to keep repeating past errors. I remember watching on television when I was a child the distinguished and long since dead English historian, AJP Taylor, he was asked by the interviewer: “What do you think the future will look like?” His answer was, possibly with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “Communism, but with democracy.” Maybe!

Video: The Great Debate – Can Science Tell Us Right From Wrong?

I believe that if you are a person who exercises reason and rationality in your everyday life, then you are a scientist at heart. Without science and critical thinking, societies will not flourish and develop. This debate covers all angles, from philosophy to social science to physics and biology, all of these fields can only help us understand the world if we use them in a rational way.  Very interesting debate. I have selected two options to watch, you can either watch the full debate, which requires few hours of your time or watch Lawrence Krauss’s speech which, for me, one of the best speeches given along with Sam Harris and Steven Pinker. Enjoy!

For the Full debate watch this:

For Lawrence Krauss speech watch this:

The Billboard: Oscar Wilde

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The Billboard: Leonardo Da Vinci

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The Billboard: Richard Feynman

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Video: Daniel Dennett – Free Will, Determinism and Evolution

Beautiful lecture by the scientific philosopher Daniel Dennett, simplifying the magical myth we associate with free will. One of his slides include three key elements to his speech.

  • Evolutionary theory, not physics, is the key to understanding the phenomenon of freedom.
  • It explains how we can be free, when our parts aren’t free.
  • It explains why people get so anxious. Freedom does evolve, and it could go extinct, if we aren’t careful.

I think free thought is how freedom evolves. Enjoy!